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Catchphrases - a study of 'mai ben rai'

I WAS SITTING IN a friend's office the other day waiting for her to finish a telephone conversation with a client. Thumbing through some magazines on her table I came across the current edition of "Vanity Fair"; a classy mag. I had always assumed (quite wrongly as it turns out) was solely about ladies' fashion. An article headlined - Five Little Words, by Jim Windolf caught my attention, and I read on. It appears that the great American catchphrase of the decade is - "It is what it is." A profound observation it clearly is not, but the writer explains how it has become commonplace across the social spectrum in the States, and, as with all catchphrases, is both misunderstood and misused, on a daily basis.

Some examples given in Mr. Windolf's article are: its use by Angelina Jolie on the Today show, when asked whether she minded being branded the "other woman" in the Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston split. - Al Gore used it in acceptance of the fact that he had lost the protracted 2000 presidential election. Mr. Windolf's article is both amusing and educational, and I urge you to seek out December's issue of the magazine.

It sparked, not without a degree of nostalgia in my mind, all the catchphrases I had come across since I first learned to read - (a week in journalism being a long time!) Don't do anything I wouldn't do - Bless your cotton socks - Long time no see - Have a nice day - and even, Beam me up Scotty; to name but a few.

Living, as I have in Thailand, for just three years, the only local catchphrase I recall hearing on the hour, every hour is" Mai Pen Rai." One that can be as misconstrued by any of those penned in the west, believe me!

Like most foreign visitors, I came to believe that Mai Pen Rai meant - It's OK - No problem - That's alright, don't worry, or never mind, it doesn't matter.

Not so, as I was soon to discover. Shortly after my arrival in Chiang Mai, back in 2002, I was driving towards Thapae Gate when a van driver ran a red light and dented my rental car. When we reached arms length of one another, the man smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said ,"Mai Pen Rai" and a string of Thai I failed to grasp.

I was later told by the police officer called to the scene that the culprit had tried to explain that his brother, a mechanic, would have my car good as new before the day was over. The poor chap must have wondered why I'd chucked him into the moat; the police officer also had some questions regarding the event.

Some months later, while dining with a friend, I distinctly heard him order chicken fried rice. When the waitress brought him a red pork curry, he politely said, "Mai Pen Rai", in the mistaken belief that the girl would fetch him the correct order. After ten minutes or so, she returned to the table and asked my friend if there was something wrong with his food, as she noticed he hadn't touched it. Clearly, the young lady took his "Mai Pen Rai" as a sign that he'd eat whatever she had brought.

I've heard some "farangs" toss the little phrase around like a tennis ball. "Why were you missing from class last week, Pornthip?" My mother passed away last Monday, sir." "Oh, Mai Pen Rai. You can get notes on the lessons you missed from someone, I'm sure."

I was shopping with my wife in one of Chiang Mai's larger supermarkets when we noticed a commotion of sorts around an ATM machine; one of those gadgets that explode into maniacal laughter and yell " you must be joking , pal", whenever I punch in my request for cash. It appeared that a young backpacker; oh dear, is that still politically correct? Well, she was wearing a knapsack over her T-shirt. OK, this young traveler, hiker, globe-trotter, wayfarer, gypsy, strolling vagabond, itinerant, nomad, or maybe just tourist, was in some distress. I could see that she was getting nowhere with the staff, and I approached her and offered to be of some assistance. It transpired that she was an American, and since I hailed from Britain, we found solace in the fact that we came from two nations divided only by a common language.

The young lady explained that the machine had "eaten" her ATM card; a common occurrence worldwide. But when she complained to a member of the bank's staff, she was greeted with a smile and the ubiquitous - "Mai Pen Rai". The distraught young woman pointed out to me the phrase in her traveller's guide where, sure enough, the translation was "Never mind; it's not a problem."

" It sure is a problem," she whimpered. "I have to catch a flight to Bangkok within the hour, and I don't have a dime", she said. I decided against explaining that a sackful of dimes would fail to get her from the store to the airport; that what she needed was some good old Thai baht. My wife, being a Thai national, agreed to mediate between the damsel in distress and a bank teller.

Within minutes there appeared on the scene a man wearing , what could easily have passed for the full-dress uniform of some South American army General , who, while turning his back on all assembled, produced a key, opened the machine, and handed the young lady her ATM card. An accompanying technician then fiddled with the mechanism, and invited the worried looking traveler to reinsert the card into the machine. In less time that it takes to say - "Mai Pen Rai", a most grateful and relieved tourist was on her way to the airport.

The smile disappeared from my face as I realized that in helping the damsel in distress, me - the White Knight, had lost his place in the ATM queue. My wife produced a most beautiful smile and said - - yes, you've guessed it. - "Mai Pen Rai", my dear.

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